Why brand authenticity is critical for customer satisfaction

Fresh Lemonade by amy.gizienski

If customer satisfaction is about meeting or exceeding expectations, then why do so many companies measure satisfaction without considering what they are actually promising their customers?   This post draws on recent observations by Simon Wood, Head of Stakeholder Management Research for TNS UK, to explore the relationship between brand authenticity and customer satisfaction.

There are various answers to the question “What is a brand”?  One of the more popular views is that a brand is a ‘promise’ to its customers.

For instance, Stuart Agres, Young & Rubicam’s former Director of Corporate Research and designer of its global Brand Asset Valuator study, has stated: “A brand is a set of differentiating promises that link a product to its customers”.

Various other definitions share the perspective that a brand is the promise of an experience that it consistently delivers – something it does for customers, or of how it makes them feel intellectually, emotionally or physically.

So it is surprising that in his post, The need for authenticity, Wood has put forward the position that “the absence of ‘brand’ has been one of the bigger mistakes [the market research industry has] made in how we handle customer experience research – with the result that it has skewed our entire thinking behind what we mean when we talk about a ‘customer experience’”.

Satisfaction as the keeping of promises

The problem in a nutshell is the common practice of companies attempting to assess their performance on customer satisfaction without taking into account customers’ expectations.  Expectations that are built on what customers believe a brand is promising them.

As Wood notes:  “How a customer feels about the service provided depends on whether that experience matches what they were promised.  If the experience exceeds expectation, they feel pleased – possibly even delighted.  If it matches the expectation, they feel satisfied. But if the experience is below expectation, you’ll have a series of unhappy customers and a problem on your hands…Here’s an example of it in action.  When you fly with a budget airline, you know what you’re getting.  The service will be basic, there’ll be no free food but you’ll pay less.  But, fly with a premium airline and get budget service, you will find yourself aggrieved”.

Clearly defining a brand’s promise, and mapping how it will be delivered and aligned throughout the customer experience, is fundamental to strategic brand management.  But it would appear – given these observations by a senior researcher – that there are many brand custodians who don’t apply this discipline.  It is also evident from Woods’ comments that – even amongst those who have an understanding of their promises – other basic principles of brand articulation are commonly ignored.

Desirable versus undesirable promises

One of these is the need for the elements of a brand promise to be valued by the target customer base, and not simply be a set of deliverables that a company feels comfortable with or that it has ‘always’ provided.  “Inevitably, we…find…examples of perfectly balanced brands where the service and promises are in lock-step but the customers are unhappy.  In that situation we have to accept it and guide our clients that it’s not the experience that is being poorly delivered, it’s that there is a disconnect with the brand promise and what their customer desires”.

The overpromise trap

Another is the trap of making a big promise and then not being able to live up to it.  A trap that brands in hyper-competitive categories with little real differences between players can easily fall into.  The temptation here is to make a grandiose declaration to rise above the pack without having existing or planned initiatives to support it.  Take for instance the various ‘Change the world’, ‘The future, today’, ‘Redefining the way’ type promises.   Many of the brands that use these options forget – as Wood states – that “if you promise more, you must deliver more”.

Brand authenticity as the key to satisfaction

The key then to customer satisfaction, as is becoming critical to most aspects of marketing, is brand authenticity.  It is about ensuring – as outlined by Yamashita & Spataro in Unstuck (and as referenced in previous posts) – that “there is no gap between the purpose of the company and its actions, no gap between what it aspires to be and how it acts everyday”.

As Wood concludes: “It’s not good enough to come up with a score based on performance ratings and look at where the gaps are largest; directing our clients to perfect performance…If we’re to give our clients meaningful analysis, we still need to assess whether the experience is generating satisfied and loyal customers who will give your brand positive word of mouth, but we also need to look at how well the experience matches the brand promise – is it supporting or undermining it, and therefore driving or damaging the brand?…This is going to require us to think about the whole experience arena in a different way – the goal posts have moved and we need to stop focusing on the delivery of ‘excellence’ and move on to the delivery of ‘Authenticity’”.

Image Credit: amy.gizienski, Flickr

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